By Dustin Albino

Daytona 500 champion. It has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?

In the wee hours of Monday morning (Feb. 15), Michael McDowell accomplished a lifelong dream: winning a NASCAR Cup Series race. But it wasn’t just another race. It was the Daytona 500, the granddaddy of all NASCAR races.

If you happen to play fantasy racing, sure, McDowell was an attractive pick with 66-1 odds. But how many people actually predicted the Phoenix native to win the Great American Race? Can’t imagine there were too many.

That’s fine though, because the 36-year-old believed in himself. After all, he’s been racing in NASCAR for 14 years; why would he race if he doesn’t believe he can find victory lane?

“I know it‘s going to sound crazy, but I always think I‘m going to win this race,” McDowell said, soaking in the moment with the media on Monday morning. “And it doesn‘t happen, and you get done with it, and you look at it and you go, man, I should have done this, I should have done that, but if I would have done this or that, I would have had a shot at winning.”

Since entering the Cup Series in 2008 as a rookie for Michael Waltrip Racing, McDowell has done just about everything there is to do in racing. He’s competed for big teams, reluctantly done start and parks, didn’t run his first full season until 2017 with Leavine Family Racing, drove other driver’s motorhomes just to have a job, raced into Daytona 500s, missed two of them along the way, coached other drivers, before finding a stable home at Front Row Motorsports ahead of the 2018 season.

Certainly chasing his dream has been quite the journey in itself.

“I always knew that if you just kept grinding that, one day, everything will line up and it will go right,” McDowell said. “But as you get further into it, you just don‘t know.”

Along the way, McDowell has been known to be one of the classiest drivers in the garage, forming close friendships with many of his companions. Little does he know the work ethic and influence he helped instill in them.

Among those friends are former NASCAR driver Blake Koch and 2011 Daytona 500 champion Trevor Bayne. It was just last month the McDowells, Kochs and Baynes went on a camping trip together in Gatlinburg, Tenn., continuing the bond they formed away from the racetrack where they are often at bible study together.

Flashback to McDowell’s rookie season in Cup, Koch had just one K&N start to his name. But it was at an appearance in a Kansas church where the two drivers connected, as the Cup driver wanted to know Koch’s background.

Since then, they’ve been close allies.

“For a Cup driver to have open arms with a young, up and coming driver like myself was pretty encouraging,” Koch told earlier this week. “I actually took him up on staying with him the next time I went to Charlotte. [We’ve] just became best buddies from there on out.”

When Koch was racing in NASCAR (now co-owner of Filter Time), the two would spend time together during the week and never cross paths at the racetrack. In 2012, Koch was chasing his dream, driving for three different Xfinity Series teams.

But primarily doing start and parks means a driver can barely get by financially as a person. Koch, who takes his fitness seriously, couldn’t pay for a $1,200 road bike that Justin Allgaier lent him. So McDowell made a start and park appearance in the Xfinity Series at Dover International Speedway driving for SR2 Motorsports and gave his winnings to Koch so he could pay back Allgaier.

“‘Just give it to Blake, Blake you pay Justin there‘s your bike,”” Koch recalled the conversation. “It was a pretty cool story where he went out [of his way] and did an Xfinity start and park just for me to buy a road bike.”

Bayne has a similar story with McDowell. They first met while testing on a road course when the 2011 Daytona 500 winner was with MWR, and McDowell was running for JTG Daugherty Racing. Because the two teams had a technical alliance, it allowed McDowell, a crafty road racer, to teach Bayne the ins and out of turning left and right.

Going into this year’s Daytona 500, Front Row Motorsports had three shots of winning the Harley J. Earl trophy, with McDowell, rookie Anthony Alfredo and David Ragan making a one-off appearance.

By lap 15, McDowell was the lone FRM driver remaining and had to wait out a nearly six-hour red flag for the race to resume.

Once the race got restarted, McDowell kept his nose clean, running in the lead draft. Taking the white flag in third, he bumped Brad Keselowski going into Turn 3, who turned Joey Logano, allowing the No. 34 to get by for the win.

Emotional for McDowell? Yes. But even more so for his friends who weren’t at the track.

“[During the red flag] I remember calling my dad and my mom, [and I] told my wife that I have a feeling Michael is going to win,” Koch recalled. “You can‘t be in the sport grinding as long as he has and always run up front at these superspeedways and not get that big break. I just had that feeling. And then I called Michael and I was like, ‘Aw, I‘m going to tell him I think he‘s going to win.‘

“I just said, ‘How are you going to win this thing?‘ He said, ‘I‘m going to latch onto one of the Penske cars, push them, hopefully be in the high lane and push them all the way to the finish line and try to make a move at the checkered flag.”

Seemed to be a little foreshadowing, right?

“[I] got home, watched the race and that‘s exactly what he did,” Koch added. “It was pretty special. He always has a plan.”

Bayne, who wasn’t in Daytona at all last weekend and had to be up at 5 a.m. Monday morning to open his Mahalo Coffee Roasters shop in Knoxville, wasn’t able to stay awake to watch the finish of the 500. His eyes shut for the evening around midnight.

But with his phone blowing up until 3:30 a.m., Bayne woke up and immediately called McDowell who was soaking in the glory.

“He‘s still wide open, definitely not asleep,” Bayne said. “I think he was still in the garage by the car in tech, something at 4 a.m. He‘s like, ‘BRO,‘ so pumped.”

Yes, Bayne is a victor of the Great American Race and has two Xfinity triumphs to his name, but aside from running eight Camping World Truck Series starts last year for Niece Motorsports, hasn’t been around the sport much since leaving Roush Fenway Racing at the end of 2018. Because of that, the success of his close friend hits the heartstrings.

“It feels like I won again,” Bayne stated. “For me, I‘ve been pacing around for [two days], and now I know how my dad felt all those years. That‘s how I feel because I want to be there; I don‘t know what‘s going on, what‘s happening. It brings back all the feelings of us going to victory lane.”

Ragan, too, was happy for his teammate, even though he was caught up in the early melee. When it was announced in the fall of 2017 that McDowell wouldn’t be returning to Leavine Family Racing, it was Ragan who told FRM team owner Bob Jenkins that they needed to hire McDowell.

Like Bayne, Ragan is an early morning riser, so he missed the end of the 500. However, his phone was also bombarded with text messages and phone calls, and he knew he missed something important.

“The first thing I thought about was that I wish his family was down there,” Ragan said. “Then you start thinking about everything. Michael has worked so hard his entire career just to survive in this sport, and now he‘s a Daytona 500 champion, locked into the All-Star Race and the playoffs.”

Ragan admitted that five years ago, he only knew McDowell casually. But since becoming teammates in 2018, McDowell has become one of Ragan’s best friends on the NASCAR circuit; live three miles away from each other; McDowell’s motorhome is stored in Ragan’s garage and their wives (Jami and Jacquelyn) are best friends.

Among Bayne, Koch and Ragan, there’s no doubt they are genuinely happy for their friend. But more than anything, they are collectively thrilled that McDowell’s hard work and dedication paid off in the form of a victory. After all, he’s been so close to cracking through since 2017, with four top-five efforts in the last 11 superspeedway races.

But they also know how close he was to losing it all.

“Michael‘s been on the edge of looking for other jobs and quitting, and the Lord has provided him opportunities,” Bayne said. “There have been times when he‘s like, ‘I‘m out‘ and literally had interviews for other jobs, [and] not many people know that.

“Two years ago, [he] was interviewing for a job outside of racing that was ministry related, but the Lord provided an opportunity for him and that was Front Row when he thought he was done.”

Koch echoed that same thought, “I remember clearly going into the 2019 offseason, him not being sure if he was going to have a ride. Filter Time was becoming successful for me, and we were talking about different ideas that he could do because he was a little scared that he wasn‘t going to have a ride.”

But Koch stated after McDowell’s breakout season in 2020 for Front Row, he had a new sense of swagger, posting a career-high four top-10 finishes, a personal best for both driver and team.

“For some reason this offseason, he felt really confident in his role at Front Row, his relationships with his sponsors,” Koch said. “This offseason was the first time I‘ve seen Michael feel pretty comfortable, pretty confident and in a different mindset since 2008.

“He takes his job serious. He‘s invested and this is his Plan A, B and C.”

Back in 2013, Ragan delivered Front Row its first checkered flag at Talladega Superspeedway, with teammate David Gilliland in close pursuit. In 2016, Chris Buescher scored a fog-shortened race win at Pocono Raceway. But those wins aren’t comparable to the Daytona 500.

Ragan, who has arguably been the face of FRM for the past decade, believes McDowell’s win will have a long-lasting effect and help the immediate future of the race team.

“The 500 is such a huge shot in the arm,” he said. “[Front Row] will reap the benefits of this over the next five years. Not only in point-fund money, but in sponsorship agreements, making the playoffs. Then the team, just having confidence and recruiting employees, retaining employees that are there that we want to keep.

“Something like this is such a huge deal. It‘s as big as Geoff Bodine winning that first race for Rick Hendrick, or Mark Martin finally winning that first race for Jack Roush in 1988. Those are things that keep people going.”

Whether the victory will have that sort of magnitude is left to be seen, but the team will be a part of the playoffs for the second time.

Regardless, FRM can call itself a winner in arguably the biggest race in North America. As can McDowell.

“There‘s very few times in my life where I‘ve cried over a race,” Koch said with a chuckle. “But knowing the work that he‘s put into it and his determination and the things he‘s gone through; the ups and downs and just hanging in there for it all to pay off was super emotional and rewarding.”

It took 14 years, 358 Cup starts, 83 lead lap finishes, 89 laps led, an average finish just north of 30th with 26 DNQs, but McDowell claimed what he sought after — a victory at the top level of motor sports in North America.

And when the 2021 Daytona 500 champion returned home to North Carolina on Monday afternoon, his close friends and family waiting, ready to greet him and celebrate his triumph at the Concord-Padgett Regional Airport. Among them were Koch, Ragan, Aric Almirola and Ty Dillon.

And it was all worth the wait.

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